Some #Txlege Takeaways from This Week’s Release of the February 2019 UT/TT Poll

The latest University of Texas / Texas Tribune Poll, which Ross Ramsey wrote about in a batch of stories released throughout the week, covered a range of subjects and issues with an emphasis on the current legislative session. As always, we’ll continue to mine the data and connect it with happenings at the legislature as the session kicks into a higher gear, but below are a first set of observations, hopefully more than hot takes but certainly less than the in-depth treatment we’ll give them in coming weeks.

1. The public opinion environment is receptive for the seemingly practical, consensus-seeking agenda that GOP leadership is attempting to pursue in the 86th Legislature, but that doesn’t mean the underlying fundamentals have changed. In the latest UT/TT Poll, respondents were asked to provide their priority for the legislature in two ways: first, in an open-ended question that asked them as much; and second, from among the list of items that Governor Greg Abbott declared as emergencies. Among the items that Abbott moved to the head of the queue, property taxes and public school funding topped the list, chosen by 23 and 21 percent respectively. If we include the 13 percent who chose “increasing teacher salaries,” those three items combined totaled 54 percent of the electorate and provide some broad evidence that the legislature is focusing on the right issues. But at the same time, when asked to provide their own priorities for the legislature in the open-ended question (asked before they were given Abbott’s list), the plurality (23 percent) mentioned something to do with immigration or border security, followed by education (14 percent), and healthcare (7 percent). Not surprisingly, the plurality mention for Republicans was immigration or border security (36 percent).

While the governor and legislators have agreed (so far) that this session is about fixing property taxes and (necessarily) school finance, the impulses that brought Texas SB4 (the sanctuary cities bill) in 2017 haven’t dissipated, as illustrated by the festering politics of David Whitley’s confirmation. GOP voters’ ready activation around issues related to immigration and border security remains a fundamental feature of the political landscape that legislators and the state’s leadership will have to maneuver around to avoid an activation of both intraparty and partisan conflict, and a loss of the agenda control required to address two of the most difficult policy issues facing the state. And remember: the chambers have neither settled on one approach to action on public schools nor agreed upon how to pay for it.

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Immigration/Border Security23%
Health Care7%
Property Taxes6%
Gun Control3%

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Immigration/Border Security9%25%36%
Health Care14%4%2%
Property Taxes3%5%10%
Gun Control5%3%0%

2. Speaking of the acting secretary of state, the poll reveals the underlying attitudes that both lead to actions by Republican operatives – like the botched voter list purge – and fueled the partisan outrage that followed. It’s American Government 101 to know that messing with the voting process is inherently political, and this is especially true in Texas with its history of intense political and legal conflicts over voting rights, election rules, redistricting, and most every other aspect of the electoral system. The intersection with immigration and the unsubstantiated trope of widespread voting by non-citizens is only the latest twist in this tortured road. A set of poll questions meant to probe attitudes about the integrity of the election process found deep suspicions among Texans, but suspicions strongly shaped by race and partisanship. Asked how frequently they thought non-citizens voted in Texas elections, 18 percent said “never,” and 28 percent said “frequently,” with another other 45 percent at points in between. Partisan differences were stark: almost half of Republicans (47 percent) said they thought it happened “frequently,” compared to only 8 percent of Democrats. We also probed the dominant liberal trope, voter suppression, in a question that asked about how frequently voters thought that eligible voters were prevented from casting their ballots. Looking again at the end points of the available responses, 18 percent said “never” and 17 percent said “frequently;” nearly a third of Democrats (31 percent) said “frequently,” while only 5 percent of Republicans said the same (29 percent of Republicans said never). Similarly, in another questions, 70 percent of Democrats said the election system discriminate against minorities, while 85 percent of Republicans said it does not. 

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Don't know/No opinion10%16%8%

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Don't know/No opinion8%18%11%

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Don't know/No opinion9%20%8%

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Don't know/No opinion8%14%13%

3. While Texans seem supportive of the leadership’s approach to property tax reform, a large chunk of Texans in both parties appear set up for disappointment – generally a bad sentiment for elected officials. Overall, a majority of voters (58 percent) say that Texans pay too much in property taxes, while a larger majority (72 percent) support the legislative solution du jour: requiring voter approval before local property tax revenue exceeds a set limit – including 84 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of Democrats. This does not, however, mean that we should expect smooth sailing going forward, as voters’ understanding of this issue is (unsurprisingly) limited. Case in point: a majority (52 percent) think that the bill currently being discussed will lower their current property taxes, and few see any likely curtailment of services by local governments should revenue growth be constrained by voters. So while the legislative leadership has clearly picked an approach to slowing the growth in property taxes that lands well with voters in principle, Texans’ expectations might lead them, and their elected officials, open to a rude awakening.

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Too much58%
Too little6%
About the right amount23%
Don't know/no opinion14%

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Strongly support51%
Somewhat support21%
Somewhat oppose6%
Strongly oppose5%
Don't know/No opinion17%

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Strongly support36%46%66%
Somewhat support26%21%18%
Somewhat oppose9%6%3%
Strongly oppose6%12%2%
Don't know/No opinion22%16%11%

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Don't know/No opinion19%

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Don't know/No opinion22%

4. While there seems to be some limited potential for incremental action in the directions of decriminalization, or a slight expansion of medical uses, don’t hold your breath on marijuana legalization. The 86th Legislature may get closer to changing Texas’ marijuana laws than any previous attempt to date, but GOP voters and interest groups remain wary of lettin’ em roll. Overall, a majority of Texans favor legalization for the possession of either small (32 percent) or any amount (22 percent) of marijuana for recreational purposes, including 68 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans. But among Republican voters, roughly a quarter (27 percent) still favor outright prohibition, with the remaining third (33 percent) in favor of medical marijuana, but not outright legalization. At some point, there’s likely to be a sweet spot at the intersection of marijuana as a part of healthcare through an expansion of Texas’ compassionate use policy, or at the intersection of criminal justice reform and some degree of decriminalization given these underlying attitudes. But the clusters of Republican reluctance remain important obstacles to big changes.

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Marijuana possession should not be legal under any circumstances20%
Marijuana possession should be legal for medical purposes only26%
Possession of small amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal32%
Possession of any amount of marijuana for any purpose should be legal22%

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Marijuana possession should not be legal under any circumstances11%27%27%
Marijuana possession should be legal for medical purposes only21%19%33%
Possession of small amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal37%34%27%
Possession of any amount of marijuana for any purpose should be legal31%20%13%

5. When it comes to vaccination, the vast majority of Texans, including Republicans, seem to get the trade-offs between public health and anti-vax sentiment – and choose public health (and science). Similar to prior polling, 78 percent of Texas voters think that parents should be required to vaccinate their children. Despite increasing attention to the size and consequence of Texas’ unvaccinated population and Texas’ prominence in the list of places with recent measles outbreaks (per coverage by The Texas Standard), a stubborn and significant minority of Texans, 14 percent, remain opposed to vaccination requirements. Amidst increased attention to this issue, people have tended to move from the “Don’t know/No opinion” response into the pro-vaccine group since 2015 – but not overwhelmingly. While 14 percent may appear a small group, it still means that roughly one in six Texans would opt not to require vaccines (including one in six parents), with consequences that could easily spill over onto the majority as a public health problem.

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Should not14%
Don't know/No opinion9%

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categoryNo high schoolHigh school graduateSome college2-year4-yearPost-grad
Should not9%13%15%16%13%13%
Don't know/No opinion23%11%8%11%8%2%

6. Speaking of science, the polarization over climate change at the national level is apparent in Texas as well. Overall, a near-majority (48 percent) say that the federal government should be doing either “a great deal” (32 percent) or “a lot” (16 percent) about climate change, while 32 percent say that it should be doing “a little” (11 percent) or “nothing at all” (21 percent). Democrats overwhelmingly favor action (83 percent), while a majority of Republicans think that the federal government should be doing “a little” (20 percent) or – the plurality choice among GOP voters – “nothing at all” (36 percent). The dynamics by age group are striking and track the national discussion as well, with 61 percent of 18-29 year olds supportive of government action, compared to 56 percent of 30-44 year olds, 45 percent of 45-64 year olds, and only 36 percent of Texas voters over the age of 65.

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A great deal32%
A lot16%
A moderate amount15%
A little11%
Don't know/No opinion5%

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A great deal61%25%7%
A lot22%18%11%
A moderate amount8%19%21%
A little2%7%20%
Don't know/No opinion3%7%5%

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A great deal36%36%32%24%
A lot25%20%13%12%
A moderate amount16%14%14%18%
A little9%9%12%12%
Don't know/No opinion6%6%4%4%

7. Let us pry that from your hands – but only after receiving a court order certifying that you are a danger to yourself or others. While Texas is unlikely to pass any significant gun control legislation in the current legislative session, the UT/TT poll found strong support for Governor Abbott’s brief and limited embrace of a gun control measure in the wake of the Santa Fe school shooting: a red flag law. Overall, 72 percent of Texans expressed support for “allowing courts to require a person determined to be a risk to themselves or others to temporarily surrender guns in their possession.” While support among Democrats topped out at 88 percent, Republican’s also expressed a surprising degree of overall support (60 percent), though somewhat tepid in its intensity – 26 percent strongly support such a law, while 34 percent somewhat support it. This result corresponds to a consistent pattern in the gun control debate, wherein support for stronger gun control laws writ large is modest, but support for specific proposals (think universal background checks) are broadly embraced. A red flag law poses an interesting challenge should Republican leaders embrace (or in Abbott’s case, re-embrace) it. On the one hand, finding Republican legislators willing to pass restrictions on gun ownership will be difficult, but red flag laws are also targeted at what GOP voters see as one of the leading, if not the leading cause of mass shootings: mentally ill people. (See this chart from October 2017.) 

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Strongly support46%
Somewhat support26%
Somewhat oppose8%
Strongly oppose10%
Don't know/No opinion10%

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Strongly support70%40%26%
Somewhat support18%25%34%
Somewhat oppose4%8%13%
Strongly oppose3%16%15%
Don't know/No opinion5%12%12%

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Insufficient restrictions34%9%2%
Poor enforcement9%3%3%
Insufficient school security5%4%10%
Insufficient mental health resources17%12%12%
Poor parenting10%21%26%
Media attention5%5%8%
Drug use1%0%2%
Violence in popular culture3%12%10%
Failure to identify potential shooters5%9%12%
School building design1%2%2%